Everyone wants to tell you how you should write your story, book, memoir or comic-book series. We’re all experts. Apparently. You will get a lot of well-meaning advice when you start out writing (like this post!) but you’re the one sitting at the desk grinding out the words. Here’s my take on the 10 worst tips for new writers that I’ve heard over the years. Some of them may be just the ticket to get you on your way. If so, great!

Write what you know

I don’t want to write what I know. I already know it. Well, sort of. One of the magical things about books and story is that you don’t have to be in your own everyday life. I understand the point of this advice – that by writing from our own world we can share a unique perspective and build an authentic experience for other people. For me, however, writing is quite a selfish pursuit and I want to write as much for myself as for anyone else. Which means I don’t always want to write ‘what I know’. I want to find out about something else. I think is a limiting perspective.

Plot

Aha! I hear you say. You said this was one of the best tips in your best tip list.

I did. I also said I didn’t like it that much. I get bored and lack the patience to plot out a story. I don’t stick to them anyway. My point is, plotting is fine. Not plotting is fine. The important thing is that the story makes it to the page through whatever path helps you get there.

Write the book you want to read

No! I’m nowhere near clever enough to write the book I want to read. That’s for actual artists. The ones I envy. More to the point, I don’t know what I want to read until I find it. I didn’t know I would enjoy a book about a sad woman with a social media addiction until I read Kate Jane Unsworth’s Adults. Why did I pick it? Because I liked the cover and the title – same as everyone else.

I prefer to write the story that’s tickling my imagination. If my brain is doing me the courtesy of plopping a story on my lap, who am I to say: Oh, sorry. I really fancy reading a space-opera romance right now, so your spy thriller will have to wait while I write the book I want to read propped up in bed.

I might be over-playing this a little, but I think this kind of overthinking is dangerous.

Build character profiles/do a character interview

For me (and this may be a trick that works for you), this seems forced. I end up with a stack of profiles I have filled in myself and overlay with a few unimaginative ‘quirks’ to make them seem interesting. Characters must have a life of their own, a voice of their own and (for me) be allowed to develop organically.

Write at the same time every day/build a routine

This is another one that makes it on to most lists. It isn’t poor advice, but it can go badly for you if you invest too much in it. It’s that same mentality as when you’re on a diet and you fall off the wagon and say, ‘stuff it, I’ll eat all the biscuits then’. The feeling that you have missed your quota, or ‘failed’ to turn up at the desk today can have a negative feedback effect. Create a routine (I like to write first thing in the morning) but don’t get stressed if you don’t make it every day. Life happens and the work will be there tomorrow – just make sure you get back to it.

Know your audience

Again, this isn’t necessarily terrible advice, it just depends on why and what you’re writing. If you’re a romance author contracted to Harlequin, then yeah, you need to know your audience. For most of us, trying to write a book you think other people will want is impossible. Write your story. Make it the best it can be and someone will love it.

Workshop it/join a writers group

You may thrive on this. I love hearing about other people’s work. I love the buzz of seeing someone else’s creative spark and knowing they have a great story on their hands. Equally, there is nothing worse that putting your precious, fragile idea out there before it’s fully formed and having it rejected. Nothing kills a story idea quicker than early criticism.

So, join a group, they have a lot to offer but think about the critique you give. Remember, it isn’t your story and other people don’t have to write it your way.

Be imaginative

What? Really? Silly me, I’d planned an entire book with the sole intention of being as drab as possible. This one doesn’t deserve any further explanation.

Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut. This is one that makes it into every list of tips for new writers. It’s true that allowing a story to unfold before the reader rather than telling them what is happening provides a more pleasurable and engaging experience. But ‘show, don’t tell’ has its limitations. It can lead to tedious over-description or worse, a confused reader who’s missing the information they need to reach their own conclusion. As a general rule, ‘show, don’t tell’ is important, but taken to it to its extreme and you will ruin your story.

Be unique

Good luck with that one. Trying to make your story unique is a sure-fire way to strangle it to death. That doesn’t mean you be deliberately derivative, use cliché or don’t strive for a unique perspective, but story structures repeat for a reason. We return to the same genre for a reason. We like familiarity as much as we like the unexpected. Just the act of you writing the story will make it unique, you don’t need to try. The same story told by five different people will end up as five different stories. We love authors because of their voice, their small insights, their worldview. Most of the time, it’s not because they have created something completely unique.

So, there you have it. Some wonderfully unhelpful tips on writing. Maybe 10 worst tips for new writers is a tad misleading because these may be the tips that you needed to get started. But that’s the thing; we’re all different and there is no set of rules for how you should create. 

If you want some useful tips, here are a few I can recommend:

The mystery of the cleaning lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience by Sue Woolf

On writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Writing excuses (Podcast)

There are so many more but you’ll develop your preferences as you refine your writing style and process.

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